Kagura is one of the best choices in Japan for fast access to great powder snow. How fast? How about this:
• straight off an overnight flight from Australia into Haneda around 6.30am
• on the 7.45am shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa 70 minutes (full of happy beer drinking young Japanese snowboarder girls)
• a 20 minute shuttle ride to the Matsumato Ropeway base at Kagura and skiing by around 10am.
And you guessed it, fresh snow had fallen.
So it was off the plane and into the powder at Naeba Kagura in around 3 and a half hours!
If time is short you can pack a huge amount into a few days in J-land, especially in Niigata Prefecture. I had just 4 nights and 5 days on this brief second Japowder mission for the season in late February, so fresh off the overnight flight from Sydney I joined the Saturday morning rush to Echigo & Gala Yuzawa.
The Saturday morning shinkansens up to the Niigata ski fields are packed with happy snowboarders who like to party. Full trains leave every few minutes for the amazingly fast trip to the snow – just 70 minutes on the quickest services – and taking a few supplies on board with you is no problem here. Somehow I don’t think allowing tinnies on a weekend morning on Skitube would work at home, it would be biffo before Blue Cow, but young Japanese boarders are much better behaved.
Forget anyone who tells you snow sports are dead in Japan, there were crowds of (mostly) boarders packing the platforms for the trip to either Echigo Yuzawa, the town surrounded by ski areas, or 5 minutes further up the line to Gala Yuzawa, Japan’s most popular ski resort, with the base built right on top of the station. Even if you have a half day to spare in Tokyo you can get up here and get into it with some great package deals and everything you need to hire readily available.
With just 4 nights on the ground this trip I was on a mission to max every moment, so instead of joining the throng at Yuzawa we hopped on the Prince Resort’s shuttle bus to Naeba Kagura, the biggest and best of the Yuzawa area resorts.
It was only just after 9.30AM Saturday morning, having left Sydney at 9.35PM Friday night, and I was almost back on snow. It’s a 20 minute bus ride up to the Matsumata Ropeway base for Kagura, where we got dropped off, sending our luggage on to the Naeba Prince Resort hotel – the flagship of the whole Prince snow resorts empire.
Kagura is a bit higher, and gets the most snow in the area. Kagura has had a very pro-powder skiing policy for years now, so it is the perfect place to start if there’s any fresh snow about. Which there was, not huge amounts, not super dry, but higher up with a little hike there was boot deep fresh to be had in abundance, with deeper pockets in the nicely spaced pines and birches.
The top gate beeper check and sign out lets you into some readily accessible side country, short hikes paying off in big line dividends. The terrain is mostly pretty mellow, and lots of fun – you don’t need to be any sort of gun skiers or riders to enjoy it.
The trees at Kagura are perfect, a mix of well spaced pines and beautiful big old birches providing nice definition when its gloomy and/or dumping. Apart from a few flurries the weather lifted off nicely for us, little bursts of sun now and then a reminder spring was fast approaching. The sun was nice, but aspect is everything as winter fades, and you have to find northerly faces for good snow this time of year.
After a quick cruise on the lower slopes and early lunch at the popular Wada-goya mountain ‘hut’ and restaurant – you can overnight here for first shot at the powder next morning – we had no trouble finding the best snow in the whole sprawling Naeba-Kagura area up in the ‘Expert Course in the Forest’ zone. This is all quite high by Japanese standards, the top lift 1,845m and Mt Kaguragamine above it reaching 2,029m, so it gets more and better snow than the immediate Yuzawa areas near the station.
The Tashiro section is mostly easy groomed runs, uncrowded, and a good option for family skiers and cruisers staying at Naeba to check out on the weekend, when Naeba itself gets pretty busy. It takes a while to work your way along the Tashiro zone back to the Kagura end of the Dragondola connection to Naeba – it’s Japan’s longest lift, a 5.5km scenic 20 minute trip over a couple of ridge lines and creeks.
We arrived to Naeba mid-afternoon, to find Kagura’s snow fall overnight had turned to rain here, which then froze, so the groomed runs were slick, giving weekend warriors a few problems. They were sliding like skittles in a bowling alley, and taking each other out the same way. I did my best to salvage one frightened lady who came hurtling towards me, getting her back on skis and across the slope to where it leveled out, and the swept off snow gave a chance to turn and stop. But she was soon sliding on her butt again, so I left her to it – after the overnight flight and full ski day it was time for an onsen and rehydration.
Naeba’s big base hotel, restaurant and entertainment complex was buzzing. It’s right back on the map now for international visitors, with more international staff and clients, as well as the weekend locals.
New venues include the Cabana Beer Restaurant, which has beers obviously, and a tapas style menu looking straight out on the night ski slopes. This being Saturday night we had a great view of the big weekly fireworks display too.
Back for my fourth visit to Naeba in 8 seasons it was great to see it on the up and up, and getting the international visitation it deserves. Previously we have always gone midweek. This time we found out what a busy Saturday was like too, which had always been a bit of a worry seeing the sheer scale of the hotel complex. But we found plenty of the best available snow, scored some fresh first tracks lines, and a had a huge day straight off the plane. Can’t argue with that.
You can stay a bit cheaper in the town up the road, but the Prince value for money adds up, especially with packages including meals and lift passes. It’s jsut way cheaper than buying the compoments elsewhere and when it dumps why walk or drive from town when you can step out the door onto the lifts? For less than a day pass at major American areas you get dinner, bed, breakfast and ski pass here at Naeba Kagura.
For families that value gets multiplied as kids to 12 ski free. The kids can even learn to ski indoors if the weather is ugly, and they’ll love the games arcade.
Naeba is Prince Hotel’s #1 ski resort, and the largest single hotel complex ski resort in Japan, offering a ski in/ski out cruise liner style experience on snow that’s great value and unbeatable for convenience, especially for families, with indoor/outdoor kids facilities. For powder skiers the easy Naeba Kagura combination adds plenty. Naeba’s groomed runs are excellent for all levels if that’s your preference.
Getting to Kagura
It’s easy to be on snow mid-morning off an overnight flight to Tokyo at Naeba – take the Joetsu shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa (70mins), then free shuttle bus to Naeba resort (50 mins) for Prince guests; Kagura’s Mitsumata base is 20 minutes bus from the station. Off daylight flights from Australia we have arrived in time for night skiing previously.
Or stay in Tokyo and get the direct bus from Shinagawa Prince Hotel, 3.45 hours.
Naeba Resort/Prince Hotels
Naeba Kagura Mountain stats and info
• Summit 1789m, base 900m, max vertical 889m
• 6m plus snowfall
• 22 courses longest 4km; terrain 30% beginner, 40% intermediate, 30% advanced/expert
• Big adults and kids parks, ski/boarder X course
• 17 lifts including 2 gondolas & 6 express quads
• Lift pass rates Naeba Kagura day adult ¥5700, senior ¥5000,
student ¥4300, kids to 12 years FREE
• Summit 1845m, base 620m, max vertical 1225m
• 10m plus snowfall
• 33 courses longest 6km; terrain 45% beginner, 35% intermediate, 20% advanced/expert
• Big park at Mitsumata, beginner park at Tashiro
• 22 lifts including 2 Ropeways, 1 gondola & 5 express quads
• Lift pass rates Kagura only day adult ¥4700, senior ¥4200,
student ¥3800, kids to 12 years FREE